By 2040 there may not be enough power for all our computers

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The Total Energy of Computing to 2040 and beyond when it is predicted that total power consumption of computers will the world's energy production - image courtesy of Semiconductor Industry Association.

Apparently there is such a thing as too many computers. That might not come as a surprise to those witnessing the the faltering social skills of millennials addicted to Facebook and Pokemon Go. However, leaving that to one side, in this instance what we're talking about is possibly even more concerning.

According to a report, by 2040, the world’s computers may need more electricity than our global energy production can deliver. That is unless radical improvements are made to power production or computing efficiency.

This alarming prediction is according to a report released last year by the Semiconductor Industry Association and the Semiconductor Research Corporation entitled Rebooting the IT Revolution: A Call to Action.

The Total Energy of Computing to 2040 and beyond when it is predicted that total power consumption of computers will the world's energy production - image courtesy of semiconductors.org
The Total Energy of Computing to 2040 and beyond when it is predicted that total power consumption of computers will the world’s energy production – image courtesy of semiconductors.org.

And the Report is indeed a call for action, raising the concern that unless someone creates a method to increase transition efficiency and decrease thermal loss, there will come a time where dense processors will simply draw too much power to function properly.

An extract from the Executive Summary of the Report reads: ‘In the past, data [was] generated and communicated primarily among information technology (IT) systems — albeit of diminishing size. In the future, data-producing systems increasingly will involve small, low-power sensors and actuators embedded in the physical world — a network of cyber-physical systems, also referred to as the Internet of Things.’

Figures in the report show that these future information and communication technologies are expected to generate enormous amounts of data, which will far surpass today’s data flows with global memory demand estimated to exceed 3×1024 bits by 2040.

The Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) is the voice of the US semiconductor industry, one of America’s top export industries and a key driver of America’s economic strength, national security and global competiveness. The semi-conductor industry directly employs nearly a quarter of a million people in the US, contributing to semiconductor companies sales of $173b.

The Association’s report from September 2015 highlights a likely massive challenge that will around the middle of the 21st century; finding and generating more power to cope with our ever expanding need for computers in our society.

The SIA calculates that, at the rate of our current data explosion and modern approaches to chip engineering, “computing will not be sustainable by 2040, when the energy required for computing will exceed the estimated world’s energy production”.

According to the Rebooting the IT Revolution report:

‘The total energy expenditure for computing (see graph above) is directly related to the number of raw bit transitions. The system-level energy per bit operation is a combination of many components, such as logic circuits, memory arrays, interfaces, I/Os, etc, each significantly contributing the total energy budget. In current mainstream systems, the lower-edge system-level energy per one bit transition is ~10-14 J, 43 which is referred as the “benchmark” in the graph above.

‘For this benchmark energy per bit, computing will not be sustainable by 2040, when the energy required for computing will exceed the estimated world’s energy production. Thus, radical improvement in the energy efficiency of computing is needed.

‘The physics-based device-level theoretical lower limit is 3×10-21 J/bit (known as the Landauer limit for binary switching), and a practical lower limit for a system-level energy consumption can be estimated to be ~10-17 J/bit, which is referred to as the “target” in the graph above.’

Not just power but also storage and silicon

The Report also estimated that the total mass of silicon wafers required for ultimately scaled flash memory would exceed the total available silicon supply.

According to the Semiconductor Industry Association, there is a widening gap between the world’s technological information storage needs and communication capabilities.

For instance, in 2014 it would have been possible to transmit all the world’s stored data in less than a year, in 2040 it is expected to take at least 20 years.